From The Washington Post:
There are hard questions in life. Things like, what’s better: “The Godfather: Part I” or “The Godfather: Part II”? Or what’s worse: “Star Wars: Episode I” or “Star Wars: Episode II”?
What isn’t hard, though, is what the unemployment rate is. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the answer to that every month.
Despite that, the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates thinks that this is the kind of issue that moderators shouldn’t try to fact-check the candidates on. “If you and I have different sources of information,” she asked CNN’s Brian Stelter, “does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?” The, I guess, fact that it might not is why she doesn’t think it’s “a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
The problem is, of course, that there aren’t different sources of information about the unemployment rate any more than there are different sources of information about what two plus two equals. There’s the BLS, and then there are conspiracy theorists. That’s it. That doesn’t mean that the unemployment rate tells us everything we need to know about the state of the labor market. It doesn’t. It needs context. And for that, we can turn to other numbers from the BLS. We can see, for example, that today’s 4.9 percent unemployment rate isn’t quite as good as 1997’s 4.9 percent unemployment rate, because so many 25-to-54-year-olds who should be in the prime of their working years are not, in fact, working or even looking for a job. Or that there are another couple million people who want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs.